For someone who has won a grand slam just over two years ago, it’s quite odd how underrated and under the radar Marin Cilic often is.
The Croatian world No10, who could guarantee himself a spot at the ATP World Tour Finals if he reaches the final of the Paris Masters this week, is quiet and unassuming – a stark contrast to the persona of his former coach Goran Ivanisevic, who spent four years working with Cilic and helped him win the US Open in 2014.
Cilic, parted ways with Ivanisevic in July and hired Swedish ex-world No4 Jonas Bjorkman as a replacement. He claimed his first Masters 1000 crown in Cincinnati in August and added a second title to his 2016 tally in Basel last Sunday.
Bjorkman was not there to witness his charge triumph in Switzerland, nor is he in Paris this week.
The 44-year-old, who coached Andy Murray for eight months last season, is actually in Dubai, where he is available for private coaching lessons at the Habtoor Grand hotel until November 5.
Bjorkman has been unable to accompany Cilic at tournaments recently due to commitments made prior to them teaming up, but they will reunite in London, should Cilic qualify for the November 14-20 season finale, and will be working together full-time from the start of 2017.
Bjorkman agrees that Cilic does not attract the kind of attention you’d expect a major champion to get but admits that coinciding with the era of the ‘Big Four’, it’s hard to make a name for yourself in men’s tennis, “because the other guys have been so successful, even when you win a slam, it’s a lot harder to become a more well known name on the circuit”.
The Swede says they have big goals they hope to achieve together and feels they are all attainable.
“I think for sure Marin wants to win more slams,” Bjorkman told Sport360° at the Habtoor Grand.
“I think just at the moment we all see that when he’s playing his best tennis, he can beat anyone. But it’s all about the consistency. I think that’s the improvement Marin needs to do. To have weeks where you maybe don’t play your best tennis but still survive the first couple of rounds and then you start to play better towards the end of the week or the slam.
“That’s all about extra practice to maybe get this percentage of first serve a little bit higher. He’s now maybe around 50 per cent, he has such a massive serve and I do think that if he gets to over 60 he will intimidate the players a lot more which would put even more pressure for the guys to play him.”
The action on tour heats up considerably in Paris this week, where seven players can still mathematically clinch one of the two remaining spots in London, while Murray has a chance of replacing Djokovic as world No1.
Bjorkman believes a change at the top can be good for the sport and says it can have a positive effect on the rest of the field.
“I think mentally it gives all the other guys a feeling that it’s possible that they could be the one to take that step up,” he says.
“Roger has been injured, Rafa now is injured, so obviously the guys feel that there’s an opportunity there.
“With Andy and Novak, I think it’s great for the game, I think they still will be the two who will dominate for quite some time in the next couple of years, I think they are at the peak. I think for Novak after Paris, he sort of got to the goal, he achieved everything. I think mentally he got to the stage where he felt accomplished a little bit and I think now he has to find new ways to get the motivation for new goals.
“Andy has been on track. So I think for both of them, for Novak it’s great that Andy’s coming up there, that gives him the motivation that he needs because he’s been more or less too dominant for a year and a half, so I think they’re going to help each other.
“I think it’s great for the game, for us who have been watching it. It’s great when someone’s dominating but it’s also much more fun when it’s more unpredictable how the tournament is going to go.”
The nine-time grand slam doubles champion reflects fondly on his short time on Team Murray but concedes it was a high-pressure job.
“It was a great experience to be part of Andy’s team. I’ve known him for a long time but still it was great to see the desire and the goal he has to achieve what he wants,” added Bjorkman.
“I’m not surprised that he’s playing this well this year. Because he’s been really putting all that work in. Obviously it’s a little bit different (working with Andy) because with his status in the UK, I think right now you probably don’t have anyone who is bigger than him when it comes to sport. If you look to track and field or football… I would put him up as the highest profile out there.
“Obviously with that, it gives even more pressure for him, but also for the whole team. But it was a great experience. And I’ve learned a lot from what I can come in and hopefully try to help Marin to achieve his goals and dreams.”
Bjorkman has known Cilic since the Croat was 16 years old as he was offered to the Swede by Bob Brett as a practice partner at Brett’s academy in San Remo.
Now 28, Cilic perhaps belongs to a generation that may not get a chance to taste dominance when the ‘Big Four’ are out of the picture. At that point, it seems the younger crop will have emerged to take over.
“It’s an interesting question. It takes some time I think to get the experience to be up there and dominant,” said Bjorkman. “You have a couple of guys who have been very consistent like Kei (Nishikori), Milos (Raonic), who still on the way up I would say, but Key has been there, so you have a few guys who will probably be more experienced and ready to take over but the young guns you never know because with their mentality, they don’t think too much, they just want to win every match and it could be that they could be mentally ready as well.
“With Marin, from winning that big one, it always comes with a lot of pressure after that. And I think with the experience he has had now for the past couple of years, if we can get to the next level in his game and be more consistent, I think mentally he could be ready to also be in the hunt of being more up in the top-five or six.”
Several youngsters have already stepped up recently like the 23-year-old Dominic Thiem who is already a top-10 player, owns seven titles and is in contention for the ATP Finals in London. But the Austrian has mismanaged his schedule this season – he has played 80 matches in 2016 – and has run out of steam in the second half of the year.
The 21-year-old Nick Kyrgios and 19-year-old Sascha Zverev are ranked No14 and 21 respectively, and have both claimed titles this season, three for the former, and one for the latter. The 22-year-old Lucas Pouille has made waves as well, capturing a trophy in Metz, and reaching the quarter-finals at both Wimbledon and the US Open.
Speaking of the younger generation, Bjorkman said: “I think Zverev has already been coming very far with consistency, not many bad weeks the last five or six months.
“I think Kyrgios has taken a big step this year, he’s also been playing a lot more consistently. We’ve already seen his potential but it was a little bit more up and down but I think he’s getting better and better each season. So I think those two probably have impressed me the most, I think they’ve been sort of the next two to maybe come up there.
“Thiem is already in the top-10, but maybe both him and his team didn’t expect him to go that quick up to the top-10 so the scheduling was already done and it’s difficult to pull out. I know his coach Gunter (Bresnik) as well and with him, once you’re committed, you’re committed. And when you’re young and you pull out of tournaments it’s all about relationships with tournaments as well, so I think they felt they had to stick to the plan and he ran out of steam a little bit. But we’ll see what happens.
“He’s still in good position of making London which would be a phenomenal effort I would say, at such a young age and already making the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 would be something that he will learn a lot from. He has a good chance of winning a lot matches as well but I think the whole experience will take him to the next level next season.”
Kyrgios has made huge strides in 2016, but has also suffered from disciplinary issues and is serving a suspension after tanking a match in Shanghai last month.
Bjorkman did not see the match so is unable to comment on the ATP’s decision to suspend the young Aussie, but believes it will prove an important life lesson for him.
“In the long-term, I think it will help Nick in a way,” he said.
“Because I’m so convinced with the game he has, it’s a great game to watch, he’s a massive talent, potentially super-high, and he’s going to be up there. When you’re young you always learn from your mistakes so I think he’ll learn from this and be ready to take the next step as well.”